Pre-pandemic, my family had been planning to take a a trip to Walt Disney World in Florida. Like so many families, our travel plans were put on indefinite hold as we grappled with the realities of COVID-19 — virtual schooling, masks, hand washing, constant sanitizing, and of course, quarantine. We struggled to decide whether or not to reschedule the vacation, and when. Finally, both my children unfortunately contracted COVID in September at school — delta variant plus inconsistent mask-wearing in schools was not kind to us. Luckily, my children’s symptoms were mild and they came through with no lingering effects. Also fortunately, neither my husband nor I contracted the virus (thank you, vaccines). Since they had already had COVID, and the rates in Florida in early November were quite low, we decided to take the risk and go on the trip. This was my first time back to Disney World since about 2008 when I lived in FL (and before I had kids).
We spent a total of 8 days on the trip — including travel to and from Texas. We wore masks and washed our hands frequently. The trip there was okay, although exhausting. We chose to stay at a Disney resort on the property for wheelchair transportation reasons – we used Disney Express to get to the resort, a motorcoach that can be reserved in advance (you must request one with a lift). We also took advantage of the bus transportation from the resort to the different parks throughout our stay. In general, this was good. Most of the time, the bus had availability to take a wheelchair (1-2 times it was already full or had two other chairs on board).
Disability accessibility has changed over the years, for sure. My experience is that of a power wheelchair user. Currently, they offer Disability Access Service (DAS) which is intended for people who have difficulty tolerating extended waits in a conventional queue environment due
DAS allows you to request a return time for a specific experience that is comparable to the current standby wait instead of physically waiting in the standby line. I did not qualify for this service, but it would be great if you disability made it difficult to stand in line. Sometime, the lines were inaccessible so we were treated like we had DAS – and that was really nice because we could come back and gain immediate entry to a ride any time after our return time (this was all done by scanning our magic bands, these bracelets you buy with your admission to the parks). I ended up preferring it when we found out the line was inaccessible.
But usually, for the majority of rides and attractions, those in wheelchairs wait in the same queue as everyone else; if there is an alternate entrance, were were typically directed there from the main ride entrance.
Now on to the accessibility of the rides. For each Disney World Park, you should look at the Disney World’s Guide for Guests with Disabilities – I had that up on my phone all the time. That will show you whether each ride is accessible or not, and if you can stay in your wheelchair or not, and whether you need to transfer. I did not attempt to ride anything particularly intense, partly because I had a nervous 6-year-old who wasn’t interested in those rides and also because I was not interested in getting injured or maimed. So, there were many rides I was able to go on as a triple amputee, and it was great when I could stay in my chair. I had to avoid all rides that stated “Must Be Ambulatory” as you might imagine, but the ones that stated “Must Transfer from Wheelchair” were hit or miss.
Sometimes, I transferred and had no trouble, but other times, if the ride was fast or jerked around, they wouldn’t let me ride since I don’t have any (even partial) lower extremities. This was frustrating mostly because often I wouldn’t be told this until I had already waited in line, and the worst was after we waited and then they told me I couldn’t ride, and then that my two young kids couldn’t either because they weren’t old enough to ride it without me. I got better about making sure I asked earlier on, and also had my
older stepson on standby in case this happened.
The whole experience gave me mixed feelings – one the one hand it was very frustrating to be told I couldn’t ride a ride that I truly knew would be safe for me, given a lifetime of experience with my disability. At the same time, my safety is important to me and I would not ever take a risk if I thought I could get hurt on a ride. I don’t believe it is reasonable to expect Disney to be disability experts, and at the same time it felt like avoiding access under the guise of safety was often an easy way out for them. My kids are old enough that they don’t use a stroller or ride on my chair anymore, but I know other disabled parents have struggled with a Disney policy that disallows their children to ride on their laps in their wheelchairs.
In the end, I feel lucky we were able to take this trip during a brief lull in COVID. It was a fun experience and we would definitely go back again. My main tips are 1) Don’t miss the Magical Express Bus back to the airport, no matter how early you have to be out there waiting. They won’t have another one with a lift that can come get you quickly and you will miss your flight! 2) Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Have a bunch of $1 bills with you so you can tip but not break the bank doing so. 2) Use the accessibility guide at the parks, and be sure to check with an employee about whether the ride is accessible to you before you wait in a long time; if they don’t know, ask them to get their supervisor. 3) If you can, plan to spend at least one day just staying at your resort to recover from the parks. There’s plenty to do including pools, arcades, and restaurants.
I hope everyone has a safe New Year’s.
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